A group of Sufi students has vowed to go ahead with a demonstration against Roberto Cavalli for his use of what it says is a sacred religious symbol, outside the Victoria and Albert Museum on Thursday afternoon, despite the fashion designer pulling out of a scheduled talk there.
A spokesperson for the Take off the Just Cavalli logo campaign, which is protesting about the use for the Just Cavalli perfume of a logo the group claim replicates a sacred Sufi symbol, confirmed the demonstration would go ahead in what the group describe as a peaceful protest.
Confusion surrounds the circumstances that led the 73-year-old Italian to pull out of the talk. A spokesperson for the V&A cited the designer's ill health and said the talk was called off in March. A tweet from Wednesday on the V&A's official account confirmed this. But a spokesperson for Cavalli, who hosted a yacht party at Cannes film festival last week, said Cavalli's health is fine and the event was cancelled in January due to travelling conflicts.
Narges Aghabozorg, one of the main organisers of the campaign, told the Guardian that she and other students had been calling the V&A for weeks, posing as members of the public, and were told the event was sold out. At no point were they informed of its cancellation, she says. The V&A disputes this.
While the exact circumstances that led to the Cavalli's cancellation remain unclear, the campaign shows little sign of slowing down. A groundswell of protest began weeks ago when students from the Maktab Tarighat Oveyssi (MTO) Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism, which has branches in several countries and estimates a student body of 500,000, implemented an intense social media campaign against Cavalli. MTO students in Dallas protested outside a Roberto Cavalli shop in the city's NorthPark Centre last Friday, and further protests are planned elsewhere in America and Europe.
The roots of the protest began in 2013, when Aghabozorg saw a Just Cavalli advert, featuring Georgia May Jagger and a male model in states of undress. Jagger sports a tattoo on her wrist of the Just Cavalli logo, which she described in a behind-the-scenes interview as "[a] snake bite, it draws us together … It's the sign of seduction." The advert drew a number complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority due to its sexual nature, but they were not upheld.
"My husband turned to me and said, 'I didn't know your school was putting out perfumes' and I looked at the logo and saw straight away the similarity to our symbol," says Aghabozorg. The 36-year-old student with the London branch of MTO then went to the school's trustees, who launched a cancellation action against Cavalli's logo with European and US trademark offices, the basis for which includes the violation of MTO's religious values. The MTO, whose website claims the school was founded 1,400 years ago, owns a copyright on the symbol.
The Cavalli company contests the accusation that the Just Cavalli logo is based on the MTO's. "The logos are clearly very different and in no way can be deemed similar, and this has been recognised by the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM)," the company said in a statement issued to the Guardian. "When the company examined, conceptualised and registered the Just Cavalli logo, it received complete assurance by a primary trademark office that there would be no issues related to the juxtaposition of the logo, and in fact there have been none."
Those associated with the Take off the Just Cavalli logo campaign disagree. "People say they're not that similar, that one is horizontal and one is vertical, but they are very similar. And if you have a logo on a perfume bottle lid, it's going to be turned around, isn't it?" said Ghonche Alvi, a 21-year-old politics student who recently founded Sufi Rights, a group associated with both MTO and the Take off campaign. "The heritage of that symbol is very old. It has been documented for 150 years and trademarked for 27 years," she added.
The symbol holds "deep meaning" for Sufis, says Aghabozorg. "It has two names of Allah, and it represents the opening of the heart, which is a symbol of the inwards cognition of Sufisim."
This is not the first time Cavalli's designs have been the source of friction with a religious group. In 2004, a range of Cavalli swimwear featuring Hindu goddesses was removed from Harrods department store after the Hindu human rights organisation lodged a complaint. Much to their dissatisfaction, the response to complaints from the Sufi community have not resulted in a removal of the offending logo.
Cavalli's spokesperson said: "We take these matters very seriously and the company has given the protests of the Sufi school our full attention. The school brought forth a proceeding in Europe, and we have won that case. We express our sincerest apologies if someone has felt religiously offended, as it was absolutely not intentional in any way."
A statement given to the Guardian today on behalf of Roberto Cavalli said: "On 16 May 2014, the OHIM pronounced itself in the first degree rejecting the request made by the School to invalidate the Just Cavalli logo. The Court states that the two logos are not mistakable and do not present any similarities."
James Thomson from the Intellectual Property Office said that while the organisation could not comment on individual cases there is a standard process of examining a community trademark. "What OHIM would be looking at is the class of goods or service. For example, is there a danger two goods can be confused? Is there imperfect recollection of one logo that makes you think of the other? In a case of a fashion designer and a religious symbol this becomes more complicated."
An MTO spokesperson did not respond to the Guardian when asked whether their community trademark action had been successful but was keen to point out that the protest against Cavalli was student-led and does not involve trustees from the school.
Asked why the protest outside the V&A was still going ahead in Cavalli's absence, Aghabozorg was unrepentant. "Why should we change our plan? People still need to aware of what's happening. Mr Cavalli didn't want to face us. He thinks by ignoring us we will just go away. We are peaceful people, but we are no pushovers. The cornerstone of civilisation is freedom of speech, we have as much right to be heard as any other person or group."
• This article was amended at 17:45 on 29 May 2014 to include an additional statement from Roberto Cavalli's company.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010